Home > Uncategorized > John Merrow Identifies as a “Progressive”, Offers Advice on How “Progressives” Can Gain Traction

John Merrow Identifies as a “Progressive”, Offers Advice on How “Progressives” Can Gain Traction

June 2, 2018

John Merrow’s Changing Conversations post on May 30 divided the education world into four identifiable groups: “Devosians,” ‘School Reformers,’ those who aren’t involved at all, and progressives and briefly defines the first three groups before offering an extended analysis of how “progressives” need to change their approach in order to gain more traction in the ongoing political debate about how schools should function. Here’s a brief overview of each group Mr. Merrow defines:

1) ‘The DeVosians,” are “…supporters of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her campaign to redefine ‘public education’  to include every type of school known to man–plus home schooling.”  Their ultimate goal is to end public education as we know it.

2) The ‘School Reform’ crowd is the bi-partisan group who imposed data-driven approaches to public education in the name of providing equal opportunity for all children. As Mr. Merrow writes, their legacy after nearly two decades “...is nothing to be proud of: declining test scores, widespread rigging of both achievement and graduation data, an exodus of teachers from the field, and a dramatic reduction among young people in interest in becoming teachers.” With NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA, this group is still steering the direction for public school.

3)  Those who are not paying attention to the ongoing struggle to control public education, which is the largest group of voters. Mr. Merrow writes: “At most, only 25% of households have school-age children, and most of the 75% pay little attention to education issues.  They are the key to real change, in my opinion.”

4) And the “progressives”, who believe in public schools but also want to see them change direction from where they are now. By Mr. Merrow’s definition, “progressives” oppose sorting and selecting based on test results and favor instruction driven by the curiosity of children as opposed to the imposition of topics and timelines by adults.

As readers of this blog realize, like John Merrow I fall into the “progressive” category. And I concur with his call to action for those of us who desire a change in direction away from the test-and-punish-sort-and-select model in place now:

Now let’s get to work on creating a genuine paradigm shift. For that to occur, at least three things have to happen.  One, we need to reject the language of ‘school reformers’ in favor of a more precise vocabulary.  Two, we need to change the conversation from hackneyed terms like “learning for all” to more dynamic language like “discovery” or “knowledge production.” And, three, we must get outside our own echo chamber and engage with the 75% of the population that does not have a direct stake in schooling.

While I DO agree with Mr. Merrow’s call to action, I fear that it will not be enough. Two things I’ve witnessed over my 29 year career as a public school superintendent and six+ years as a blogger: first, those who control the debate in the media will expropriate any meaningful terminology and make it into hollow phrases; and second, engaging the disengaged may require those of us seeking change to consider expropriating the arguments of the Devosians and reformers that our schools are failing.

To illustrate my first point, one need only recall that in the early 1990s if one favored “reform”, they supported the ideas about schooling advanced by Ted Sizer and other educators who favored student-centered approaches that are very much like those “progressive” ideas in this post. A “reformer” in that era also favored racial and economic de-segregation, funding equity, and more spending on public education. At some point the Democrats joined the Republicans in reaching a consensus that “throwing money” at the problem was unnecessary and that the Technology Gods would provide a more efficient (and less politically inhospitable) means of addressing the high-minded ideals of civil rights leaders in the 1960s and early 1970s. This effort to address “the soft bigotry of low expectations” was called “reform” by the technocrats who saw an opportunity to profit from the data-driven direction schools would head and especially by those who saw the potential for an emerging market when public schools inevitably failed to meet the standards.

In order to gain the attention of the disinterested and ultimately win their hearts and minds, I fear it will be important to accept the argument that schools are failing but offer a different and persuasive rationale WHY this is the case. As a progressive, I find it very easy to make the case that our current paradigm IS failing children. By emphasizing sorting and selecting over unifying and edifying we are creating the alienated children who see their only means of achieving power is to isolate themselves and engage in video games where they can control imaginary worlds. We are creating a world where “success” is determined by seemingly precise mathematical algorithms and not by “sloppy” metrics like the ability to get along with others or empathizing with others. And here’s the worst part: we are telling children who attend underfunded public schools that do poorly on standardized tests that they must accept a world where they live in austerity while those who attend well funded public schools that are successful on tests live in a world where “frills” like recess, drama, music, and the arts are a given. In short, getting the disinterested off the sidelines may require progressives to show the general public that the world we have now is the result of the world we created when we decided to determine “success” by test scores.

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